By Jean Lotus
Think about the 18,935 students in the Proviso Township feeder districts, was the advice given to area board members and superintendents Monday who gathered to brainstorm ways to improve student success between the elementary and high school districts.
The subject of the summit was an education concept: articulation, or a seamless, consistent meshing of the student experience, elementary through high school.
Consultant Jeff Cohn, until recently a professional facilitator for the Illinois Association of School Boards, invited the group of about 20 to identify the best way to ensure educational success for all 18,935 students, kindergarten through high school.
Cohn is well known by Forest Park's school board and has worked for the past seven years to identify goals at D91 board retreats.
Articulation is a transition for students from grade to grade smoothly with no gaps or overlaps of curriculum, and no abrupt changes in teaching techniques, Cohn told the group.
The meeting took place in the cafeteria of Proviso Math and Science Academy in Forest Park. Present were Forest Park D91 Superintendent Louis Cavallo and school board members Rafael Rosa and Sean Blaylock.
Also present were board members from Lindop School District 92 in Broadview: Carla Joiner-Herrod, Penny Williams-Wolford and Princess Dempsey. Others included Berkeley District 87 Supt. Eva Smith and Asst. Supt. Dan Sullivan. Westchester District 92 ½ Superintendent Michael Dziallo attended as well as Hillside District 93 Supt. Frank Deo and board member Therese Fitzpatrick. District 88 School Board Member Katie Ross was also there.
Also present were District 209 Supt. Nettie Collins-Hart and several of her administrators: Special Education Director Vanessa Schmidt, Truancy and Special Projects Administrator Dan Johnson, PMSA Principal and Vice Principal Bessie Karvelas and William Breisch and Proviso West Principal Oscar Hawthorne.
District 209 board members Ester Readith, Kevin McDermott, Brian Cross and Theresa Kelly were randomly split among four groups to hash out ideas.
Using an analogy of a grove of aspen trees with an intermingled root system, Cohn asked board members to brainstorm on a long-term level and hypothesize how the district could be if it were a unified school district.
Cohn urged the group to, "give yourselves permission to create a new reality."
The D 209 board's Kevin McDermott said he wanted to get to the bottom of the excuse that students arrived at the high schools woefully unprepared and reading at a 3rd grade level.
Berkeley D 87's Supt. Smith pushed back at the idea that students from the feeder schools were unprepared.
"We believe our students are well prepared," she said. Smith's group proposed thinking of the two districts as a "continuity of services" and suggested aligning district calendars so spring break and winter vacation lined up.
The groups called for consistent communication between D 209 and the feeder schools, including having teachers visit each other's schools and welcoming parents into the high schools on a regular basis.
Westchester Supt. Dziallo said the feeder schools should rebrand themselves as members of a Township. The group agreed they should work together to "share the wealth of instructional strategies" for teachers. Lindop's Jointer-Herrod also suggested linking the articulation all the way through community college. Several groups discussed sharing student data between high school and elementary schools to help benchmark best practices and identify schools that are sending the best students.
Of the almost-19,000 high school aged students in the district, only 5,063 attend high school at D209. In many communities, if there is an even distribution of children, around one-third of students attend public high school, and two-thirds middle school. If one-third of Proviso students attended from the district, the enrollment would be around 6,300.
According to a report presented to D 209 in Nov. 2012, there were around 215 Forest Park students in District 209. Many Forest Park parents opt out of the public high school district by moving away in eighth grade or paying tuition at private schools.
The communities who send the most students to Proviso high schools are Maywood, Bellwood and Melrose Park, which send between 900 and 1,200 students each.
But none of those towns were represented at the meeting.
"Why didn't D 89 show up?" asked Princess Dempsey after the meeting. "They needed to be here and they're not represented at all."
The issue of "lack of trust/buy in and student safety" was chosen by participants as the most important topic to focus on, according to a consensus of the participants. Developing the structure of the articulation was a second favorite.
The group set a "smart goal" that they would still be working on articulation issues next July, that they would work on a Township-wide mission statement and that another meeting would be set up in January.
Forest Park school board member Rafael Rosa has expressed frustration in the past at his participation in a parent advisory board at PMSA that fizzled out during a previous regime.
Forest Park board member Sean Blaylock said Monday's meeting did not focus on pointing fingers.
"The ground rules were to focus on solutions without blame," Blaylock said. "That changes the whole dynamic of the meeting."
Blaylock said he likes working with Cohn because of the facilitator's focus on "not tomorrow, but long-term."
"It's up to D 209 to follow up on things we discussed tonight," Blaylock said.
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